American Fraternity Background
Fraternities have existed in the United States ever since 1776. However, during the Civil War, student groups began to purchase real estate on a large scale and with this change came many complications. Questions were raised about initiating female students and creating sororities. Since then, fraternities have experienced many times of crisis — from anti-Masonist movements, low enrollment during times of war, feminist opposition, and civil rights movements.
Fraternities are still allowed. We just can’t live in our houses, we can’t eat in our houses, we can’t have social functions in our houses, we can’t even enter hour houses, which is bogus…what we are fighting it from is anti-trust laws…[the university] will have a monopoly on the housing…it is part of a growing trend against fraternities…right now fraternities control 30% of housing…and the school wants to control that. (The Owl)
We had this party…and this girl as out drinking downtown and she got wasted, and she was outside climbing from one room to the next, on the ledge, and she fell and she died. It was a real horrible death and everything, so that is why we were kicked off campus (Hugh G. Rection)
[Our fraternity] lost its charter a couple of times, including mine, because of problems they have had. At this point in time they are talking about kicking all of them off of campus because of all the problems as far as rape and stuff. It was pretty bad. (Chris)
American Greek letter societies began in 1776, the same year as the birth of the United States. Like modern fraternities, the United State’s first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa, had oaths, mottoes, badges, traditional ceremonies, and secret rituals. Phi Beta Kappa authorized national branches in 1779, thus beginning a pattern of expansion that is reflected today. From the outset, the relationship between a university and its fraternities has been problematic.
Most universities made attempts to regulate or control student organizations such as fraternities, debate groups and literary societies. Nevertheless, these groups emerged in response to the orthodox academic convention of the time. Students struggled to freely associate for intellectual or social activity not allowed in the classroom climate. University administrators sought to limit student organizations citing moral decline. Economics played a strong role in university restrictions because membership and initiation fees took money away from university. Eventually, a compromise was made at most universities in which student organizations were allowed but the university still maintained the power and means to regulate their activities.
By the 1890s, fraternities had begun to occupy and own their houses on a large scale. Fraternity alumni had grown prosperous enough to build houses and become influential in college affairs. With this new fraternity development and growth came responsibilities. Alumni acted as corporate trustees who handled financial and legal matters, while undergraduates managed business and internal affairs. The new economic group-living arrangement of mutual interdependence. The ownership of property also brought different fraternities to a new level of organization. In 1883, the first attempts to develop a Pan-Hellenic Council began, bonding fraternities at a unprecedented level.
The growing fraternity population, and the new trend of owning houses, evolved out of the climate following the Civil War (1861-1865). At this time, both universities and fraternities were experiencing structural changes. For example, women began to seek advanced education at a scale unheard of before which pressured many male-exclusive colleges to permit open female enrollment or, at least, to offer a limited access to university education. Some fraternities also began to allow female membership. For example, in 1861, the Wabash chapter of Beta Theta Phi, according to unverified records, initiated two women, Emma Bennett and Celia Crocker. Sigma Alpha Epsilon, which regarded Lucy Pattie as a full member, allowed her to guard their fraternity ritual and secret papers until the end of the Civil War.
The precedent-setting Phi Beta Kappa, in 1875, was perhaps the first fraternity to formally initiate women, Ellen Eliza Hamilton and Lida Mason (Johnson 57). However, at most universities women were discouraged from joining fraternities thus, instead, “[t]hey would have their own completely separate and equal fraternities to provide themselves with comparable social and other privileges, but independent and self-governing” (59). In 1867, Pi Beta Phi, at Monmouth University, became the first U.S. sorority. However, evidence suggests that female secret societies, similar to sororities, had existed prior to that time.
It is curious to note that the practice of hazing also emerged around this time. During the Civil War (1861-1865), hazing was commonly practiced in military camps. The military-oriented practices were brought by young male soldiers into their all-male fraternities (Owen 1-3). Following the war, hazing was a new method to insure that members would adhere to house responsibilities and their financial duties. Hazing was a also a means to preserve a specific social order in the house and to illustrate which leaders had the power to punish or cause pain to subordinate members who did not adhere to the defined social structure.
World War One, the depression of the 1930s, the World War Two marked periods of great crisis, followed by tremendous growth. For example, during World War Two, fraternity houses were often left empty as the young men went to fight overseas. Pledging was limited and many houses folded due to lack of membership. However, once World War Two ended, fraternities experienced on of its greatest membership growths in history. The GI Bill gave many returning veterans the opportunity to attend colleges and universities for the first time. Naturally, this carried over into fraternity houses as soldiers became members.
Fraternities have always had social organizations which confront them. For example, an anti-Masonist movement in the late 1820s brought strong disapproval of fraternities in which Freemasonry had a heavy influence (Owen 1-2). A farmer based populist movement of the 1890s made attempts to prohibit fraternity organization. Civil Rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s also demonstrated a building resentment against fraternities. Furthermore, many universities persisted in abolishing them: Virginia Military Institute and Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1878, Monmouth in 1884, Wooster in 1913, Norwich in the 1960s, and currently many private colleges are involved in court battles to eliminate them (Owen 1-23). At this moment the most vocal and observable opponent to fraternities are feminists. As women enter universities many are confronting what is viewed as male privilege. Fraternities are seen as strongholds in which men guard privileges, oppress women, and preserve professional ties and wealth.
Despite several wars and much social opposition, fraternities have somehow managed to survive. The rituals, ceremonies, and secrets of many fraternities have contributed to this. Fraternities represent a unique tradition of male bonding that is perhaps unequaled by independent male groups. This can be positive or negative depending on who you ask. Nevertheless, fraternity male bonding has demonstrated striking ability not only to survive but also to accumulate wealth and power. In fact, the Baird’s Manual of American College Fraternities (1991), reports an increase in membership and fraternity houses. There are now hundreds of recognized fraternities and countless informal ones. These fraternities have experienced an increase in membership from 230,000 members in 1980 to over 400,000 in 1986 (Anson & Marchesani 1-1, 1-5).
Fraternity growth has its costs. Fraternities have now become as institutionalized as the universities that once prohibited them. It appears at times as if young fraternity members are now in defiant rebellion against their Alumni and National Chapter’s restrictions, in ways similar to male student organizations defiance of university authority in the past.